Kim Surber was scheduled to have outpatient surgery for cancer this past Monday.
That’s remarkable in that surgery is not usually an option for Stage 4 breast cancer patients.
It’s also an indication of that a positive attitude and strong family and friend support can help bring about.
“I’m not going to work around cancer,” she said. “Cancer is going to have to work around me. I have places to go and things to do.”
As is often the case, Kim had no idea cancer lay in her future.
She had no history of cancer in either side of her family, and didn’t consider herself as having high risk factors.
No one knows what caused her cancer. She said it could be past habits, use of a CPAP machine for sleep apnea for the past year, poisoning at the farm, or even just things we breath in the air. Her cancer didn’t start in her lungs but metastasized there from breast cancer.
To be sure, she and family members have since had genetic testing, which was negative. “That means my children, my brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles are safe,” she said. “It doesn’t mean they still don’t need to go get checked.”
We all have cancer cells in our body, Surber said. We just don’t know what activates them.
“Mine started with stopped up milk ducts in my left breast,” she said. That was found on a mammogram. And over a year it metastasized.
Unfortunately, the Covid pandemic arrived and the Women’s Clinic shut down. During the time before she was able to get another mammagram she could feel something was growing. The problem had turned into cancer and metastasized. Then the next mammogram revealed the cancer.
“When I finally got a mammogram there was a seven-centimeter mass in my breast. That’s the size of a baseball,” she said. “Oh, it was quite noticeable. Plus it was painful.”
She said she learned that when a milk duct does not absorb back into the body. it can turn into cancer. It can get so full that it tears and whatever cancer cells are in it can spread.
That’s what happened to her. It got into her lymph nodes under her left arm as well and metastasized into both lungs.
Once this was found, doctors were very aggressive, she said. “There was a mammogram one day, a sonogram the next day and then I met with the oncologist the next day that explained to me that I had cancer,” she said. “And they were sending me to get a PET scan to see what type I had and if it had spread.”
The news was not as much a shock as it could have been.
“After watching the lump grow and grow, I wasn’t surprised but I was hoping it wasn’t cancer,” she said.
Shortly after that she had a breast biopsy, actually a lung biopsy that was actually called a bronchoscopy, then a lung biopsy.
“There were 17 spots in one lung and 19 spots in the other,,” she said. “To me they looked like sparkles on the X-ray. They weren’t big but if they had gone untreated they would have gotten a lot worse.”
A plan of attack was decided on and about a month later she started chemotherapy. “My first four chemos were like a double chemo. The nurses would tell me that they were kind of bad,” she said. One was the notorious drug nicknamed Red Devil, familiar to many cancer patients. She got four of those with another drug. The length of treatment time depends on the type of chemo, she said. It was three hours for the Red Devil but 30 to 45 minutes for some other. She did change treatments after having an allergic reaction to one.
From the moment of her diagnosis, she said, “The Cancer Center has been magnificent.”
Her oncologist is Dr. Shailesh Satpute and Kim Hardin is her oncology nurse practitioner.
Treatment has been more difficult for Kim because she is what is known as a “triple negative,” which is bad.
“That means that if the cancer is untreated I could die,” she said. “It is very bad.”
About 10 to 15 percent of all breast cancers are triple-negative, according to cancer authorities. Its name signifies that cancer cells have tested negative for three indicators that define other types of breast cancer—receptors for the hormones estrogen and progesterone, and the protein called human epidermal growth factor, or HER2. Because of that it is more difficult to treat.
Despite aggressive treatment, Surber said she suffered remarkably few side effects.
That changed only slightly with the second round. “I was in the shower and my hair just started coming out,” she said.
“What little hair that didn’t wash down the drain became a family affair,” she continued. “My husband cut most of my hair off. My daughter shaped it up so my bald head wouldn’t look so bad and my son cleaned up was on the carport floor. It just turned into a family affair making sure my head was nice looking and then we started finding caps and hats.”
“Vanessa Williams, a very good friend of mine, brought me a chemo basket,” she said. It contained pads, pens, word puzzles, Chapstick, lotion, gum (chemo gives you dry mouth) and other useful items that Williams knew would be helpful because she is a cancer survivor herself.
“Some like to sleep during chemo,” she said. “I like to look around, watch the aquarium and TV. There isn’t much interaction there.”
Cancer Center staff and others have remarked on Surber’s remarkably positive attitude and the positive results.
“A lot of friends and family helped me through this,” she said. “Prayers have been the big thing, you know, from all the churches.”
She is a case manager for the Mississippi Department of Human Services and has continued working, even if sometimes at home. Most Stage 4 patients can’t or don’t do that.
“My work family has been very, very positive,” she said. “They fixed up a really nice chemo basket with pajamas, jewelry, hats, gift cards, candy.”
“They just made it a big deal about hats,” she said. “Every time I had chemo I got jewelry from my boss, Pam Toler, the director. They all kept positive attitudes, they’re still buying me hats, and they still send me flowers.”
She has had 11 chemo treatments. “So far I have not gotten sick, not throwing up one time,” she said. “My blood work has been great. I stayed up for first nine but last ones have taken me down some.”
Her support has been fierce.
“They have protected me from the cancer,” she said. “They made a difference. They will defend me from breast cancer.”
She said the mood was gloomy at first, but only briefly. “That didn’t last with the clown house I live in,” she said.
In fact, the atmosphere is considerably lighter now.
“My family trying to figure out what they’re doing to do with my head for Halloween,” she said. “Pumpkin, Charlie Brown head or the Chiquita banana woman?”
She does have a wig the family likes but she hasn’t felt the need to wear it in public. She won’t go out without a hat, though, and each one is decorated differently.
A sobering fact is that “I will always be Stage 4 even if go into remission,” she said. “But nobody’s going to allow me to die. Nobody’s going to allow me to quit.”
“Nobody was going to allow me to have Stage 4 breast cancer and the problems that come with it,” she continued. “I’m not one to feel sorry for myself. Things happened. You have to walk the walk to get to the finish line.”
“I’m almost to the finish line.”
Her lungs are clear now and only the surgery remains.
“It used to be that with this diagnosis mastectomy was the first thing they did,” she said. “Now they consider chemo and other treatments first. With Stage 4 usually operations are not an option because you are stage 4, but because my body has reacted so well to the chemo they are going to give me that chance. My oncologist is blown away by this. He said he has seen it before but it is rare.”
She has a blood clot in her right arm but doctors say they don’t think that will be a problem with surgery. “It’s common when you have a port,” she said.
Nose bleed is side effect of chemo, and also joint pain but the good news is that the mass in her breast is down seven to a little less than two centimeters.
Of course other breast cancer survivors have been supportive. “They’ve been very encouraging,” she said. “Like the Cancer Center says, it’s very important to keep your attitude up. Stay off the internet. Do what your doctor says. Just fight as hard as you can.”
“I have not been afraid the whole time,” she said. “I’ve had a low time. Just having a moment by yourself. A couple of times reality has hit. You have cancer, you could die, but it’s probably just the bad side of your mind. Sometimes it’s mind over matter.”
“You’ve got to fight the side effects,” she said. “Sometimes sweating is terrible. Hair loss has not bothered me. They tell you what the side effects could be.”
“Dr. Danny Sanders is doing my surgery. He is a specialist in this type of surgery,” she said.
Concerning surgery, “I’m ready to go now. Cancer inside my body feels like a ticking bomb. Because my cancer is aggressive, I do not want to give it an opportunity to grow,” we said. “We have all worked so hard to get it reduced to where it is now, I’m ready to get this last little bit out and never have to deal with it the rest of my life.”
Perhaps remarkably, her surgery will be on an outpatient basis.
Recovery will be 4-6 weeks before she can return to work. “I will possibly have more chemo, on a preventive basis, but it may change from IV to pills,” she said.
Kim expressed thanks to many people but her quiet rock has been her husband.
“Jimmy has been my biggest get-over-cancer fan,” she said. “He’s gone with me for every chemo, test, doctor’s appointment, X-rays, ultrasounds, biopsies. He hasn’t missed a step.”
But his support might not have been enough without her own attitude.
“He (her oncologist) never said ever that I was terminal,” she said. “Usually when you’re Stage 4 you learn that right off the bat.”
She kept pushing and pushing for the surgery, even though they said they don’t usually do that for Stage 4. “I didn’t let it go and eventually he figured out this girl really wants this and is making it happen. Attitude has a lot to do with it.”
For anyone who gets that diagnosis, she said give her a call. “We will get through it,” she said. “Listen to your doctor, keep a positive attitude and stay around positive people.”